A Fine Talking Shop: The London Conference on Somalia

Today fifty-five international leaders met to discuss the world’s perennial failed state, Somalia. It was billed as an opportunity to build a shared agenda, particularly on the global counter-piracy and anti-terrorism effort. Anna Rader offers some initial reflections on the summit’s politics and recommendations.

By Anna Rader for RUSI.org

Yesterday, the much-heralded London Conference on Somalia was held at Lancaster House – home to previous British diplomatic efforts towards Africa. Expectations were high in the run-up to the one-day event, not least from the Somali population at home and abroad who have subjected the delegate list and agenda to great scrutiny. There has been understandable pessimism about what such a conference – a day long, far from Somalia and without key Somali voices – could achieve. But the conference came hot on the heels of a military breakthrough in Al-Shabaab’s heartland, UN Security Council support for extending the African Union peacekeeping mission, and progress within Somalia on the political roadmap, all of which raised hopes that the London conference might be a historic milestone in Somalia’s recovery.

Politics of the Negotiating Table

The leaders or foreign ministers of over forty countries attended the conference, together with representatives from key international organisations such as the UN, AU and EU, and Somalia’s multiple regional administrations. All in all, it appeared a cosy affair, with the opening addresses commended by UK Foreign Minister William Hague for being clear and demonstrating unity of purpose.

However, behind the doors of the closed sessions, the divergence in international positions and the sheer breadth of the agenda would have become quickly apparent. In fact, even the live-streamed introductory speeches displayed the delegates’ varying emphasis on the different priorities, with US Secretary of State Clinton striking a tough note on Al-Shabaab, whilst the Qatari and Turkish foreign ministers stressed the need for sustainable development and economic growth. Indeed, these opening speeches betrayed the delegates’ bottom-line positions, with Kenyan Prime Minister Kibaki appealing for help with overcrowded refugee camps; Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles justifying the regional military incursion; and Ugandan President Museveni warning against the ‘bankruptcy of sectarianism’. These leaders knew they were on show just as much as the conference’s hosts, and Somalia’s neighbouring countries were quick to claim their credibility as partners for security and reconstruction.

This morning, the president of the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed (seated, incidentally, away from the real powerbrokers), asked what has happened to everything agreed to date on Somalia. A good question, since this is only the latest – albeit perhaps the most prominent – summit on Somalia during the last two decades. Although some of those efforts have reaped rewards, such as the Djibouti Process that inaugurated the TFG, others have lacked the resources or political will to generate real change on the ground. And this of course is the fear about the impact of the London conference: can it be more than showmanship in the name of multilateral diplomacy? To do this, the conference had to agree a schedule of aid and economic support that is genuinely long term; mechanisms for international co-operation on security and counter-insurgency that are sustainable, properly resourced and realistic; and channels for capacity-building and development assistance that can make a real difference at the local and regional levels. This was a tall order, and goes beyond headline-grabbing donor announcements into the weeds of basic issues like disarmament, livelihoods, electoral commissions and policing that do not guarantee publicity, but will be the building blocks of a rejuvenated Somalia.

Areas of Agreement

So what was agreed? The draft communiqué was leaked a week ago on the Internet, so the actual points of accord were no surprise.[1] Perhaps what was surprising was that so little had been altered in the final version, suggesting that the Foreign Office consultations, and the breakfast meetings and corridor chats associated with a high-profile conference, have not yielded new or imaginative solutions to Somalia’s problems. Instead, we have tried-and-tested promises of humanitarian and development assistance for what Prime Minister Cameron called the ‘complex jigsaw puzzle’ of Somalia. President Meles let the cat out of the bag when he said that the pre-conference papers were characterised by ‘creative ambiguity’.

Security, Terrorism and Piracy

The communiqué’s recommendations fall into seven areas. There was significant emphasis on security. This was to be expected, as the UK prime minister has emphasised all along that the ‘global threat’ of piracy and terrorism was the driver behind the meeting’s convocation. In the press conference, Cameron claimed this week’s UN Security Council Resolution 2036 (which expanded AMISOM’s mandate and troop numbers) as ‘the first success of the conference’. The taking of Baidoa, Al-Shabaab’s strategic stronghold, on Wednesday was a clear indicator of what can be achieved with more resources and personnel, an accomplishment not lost on Prime Minister Meles of Ethiopia. But, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made clear, the Ethiopian troops do not fall within the AMISOM framework, and AU troops will be quickly deployed to hold the town in their stead. The AMISOM increase is well overdue and is an important breakthrough but, as Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh eloquently advocated, the focus on AMISOM has obscured the need to restore and rebuild Somalia’s national forces. These are the only ones ultimately able to secure Somalia in the long term, but the communiqué is weakened by insufficient mention of this issue, and particularly of police and coastguard capacity-building, which are obvious counterparts to the national army. 

On terrorism, Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Ali invited drone attacks on Al-Qa’ida targets within Somali territory, saying it was a global not a Somali problem. On piracy, Prime Minister Cameron announced the creation of a task force on ransoms, with the ultimate ambition of ending such payments altogether. But, as has been argued in the RUSI Journal, eliminating ransoms is not a silver bullet,[2] and much more needs to be done to dismantle piracy infrastructure. This is alluded to in the conference commitment to disrupt money laundering networks and the financing and travel of terrorists in the region, but in general the discussions on counter-piracy took place beyond Lancaster House at a meeting of the International Maritime Organization on Tuesday that discussed the details of best practice compliance, embarked private armed guards, prisoner transfer agreements and intelligence-sharing. It is unfortunate that the London conference put so much rhetorical if not also practical emphasis on counter-piracy, since this is the one area other than humanitarian relief that already benefits from international co-operation and assistance.

Local Stability Fund

Of particular interest was the UK’s announcement that it would create a ‘local stability fund’ for the rehabilitation of governance in those areas cleared of Al-Shabaab. Denmark, Norway, the UAE and the Netherlands are also to contribute. As host, the UK needed to make such an announcement, and this does represent a step forward, inasmuch as it explicitly recognises the enormous challenge of connecting local and regional administrations with the central government, and of building effective bulwarks against the resurgence of Al-Shabaab. Whether this will involve civilian assistance and training, or simply funnel money (or rebadge existing funds) into humanitarian efforts is not yet clear, but may have been discussed at the prior humanitarian meeting chaired by the UN and the UAE.

Political Reform

On the essential issue of political reform and institution-building, the conference’s international delegates could but agree to support the domestic process, and many heaped praise on the third constitutional conference that took place last week in Garowe, Puntland. There, a cross-section of Somali stakeholders, including civil society and representatives from the recently secured Jubaland and Beledweyne areas, met to discuss the post-TFG political roadmap, including the decision to increase women’s participation to 30 per cent, a move welcomed by the UN Secretary-General. As made clear by Clinton and Cameron, the international community’s contribution will be to hold the current Somali leadership to account on political progress. Both said that the international community would not brook any further extension of the mandate, with the Secretary of State declaring this morning that attempts to stonewall or maintain the status quo would not be tolerated.

Economic Recovery

A Joint Financial Management Board is to be established to support anti-corruption efforts and the collection of public revenue, following on from last year’s commitments made in Nairobi and Copenhagen. But there is more to be done to create the free market and jobs that the Somali president called for in his speech. This is where the absence of any members of Somalia’s astoundingly resilient business community was most keenly felt. In many respects, these interests have sustained the modicum of stability and predictability in Somalia since 1991, and it would have been useful for international heads of state to have heard directly from these Somalis.

The other obvious absentees were Al-Shabaab, but Secretary of State Clinton was adamant that there would be no negotiation with the jihadist group that recently announced its formal merger with Al-Qa’ida. Without a negotiated peace, Al-Shabaab will need to be defeated military, alongside an immediate political process strong enough to step into the vacuum. This puts huge pressure on both the security and political strategies at a time when both are relatively immature and weak – but this has obviously been the price of the US’s involvement. 

International Co-ordination

Finally, the conference agreed to reform the international contact group. Details were not forthcoming, but this should be a useful way to maintain momentum from today through to the next international meeting in June in Istanbul. At the press conference, Prime Minister Cameron was eager to distance the UK from the issue of foreign responsibility going forward, arguing that this conference was about helping Somalis to decide their own future. Whilst the UK has been applauded for bringing together so many international political leaders, Turkey is the clear winner from today. In the public session, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made sensible, pragmatic suggestions, such as developing a PRT-model for regional reconstruction, and rebuilding the national transport infrastructure to support law enforcement, trade and communication. Turkey has won accolades across Somalia for its diplomatic engagement, including being the first to re-establish an embassy in Mogadishu in November 2011 and for President Erdogan’s state visit. In this sense, the Istanbul conference will be the real test for the promises and show of bonhomie that took place in London today.

An Early Assessment

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was parsimonious in his praise for the London conference, commending it for creating political solidarity and a clear path forward. As he pointed out at this evening’s press conference, the UN has worked for years on Somalia – the subtext being that the London conference is but part of the ongoing international conversation about restoring Somalia’s health and wealth. As the heads of state are chauffeured back to the airport, Somalis will ask: what has changed? As with so much international diplomacy, the proof will be in the pudding. 'There will have been important bilateral talks and co-operation agreements signed behind the scenes, but success will be judged on whether the momentum from London can be maintained. Will the promises made today lead to multi-year funding and sustained engagement? Will Al-Shabaab be decisively defeated?  Will the international community play a lasting and positive role in Somalia’s political transformation? As ironically demonstrated by David Cameron’s impassioned attack on the Syrian regime during the Somalia press conference, much on the international agenda could easily relegate the patient, long-term support needed for Somalia’s normalisation to the sidelines.

Anna Rader is an Associate Fellow at RUSI.

The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of RUSI.


[1] London Conference on Somalia Communiqué, 23 February 2012,  http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/news/latest-news/?view=PressS&id=727627582.

[2] Dominick Donald, ‘Sanctuary, Shipowners and Paying Ransoms: Refocusing Counter-Piracy Policy in an Era of Austerity’, RUSI Journal (Vol. 156, No. 6, December 2011).


Anna Rader

Associate Fellow

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